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The Big Holdup (1975) September 29, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Thriller, 1970s films , add a comment

Director: Chor Yuen  Starring: Danny Lee, Chen Kuan-Tai, Tin Ching  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company:  Shaw Brothers

A gang of young robbers steal HK$5,000,000 as it is being transferred from a bank and get promptly ratted on by their boss, Maiguang (Tin Ching).  Maiguang then, just as promptly, gets knocked off by his boss.  The youngsters, now fugitives from the law, try to piece together what went wrong as they evade the law.

The Big Holdup is meant to be a taut crime thriller from veteran director Chor Yuen.  The first half hour typifies exactly why I love Hong Kong cinema yet sometimes find it so frustrating – the pace never lets up for a second, and packs in so much energy for a full-length film in its own right.  Unfortunately, as is quite often the case, this results in one hell of a confusing mess, as characters are introduced with scarcely a line of dialogue, people are casually bumped-off and betrayals are heaped on betrayals. 

Thankfully, the second half hour calms down considerably and the film gets a chance to breathe.  We find that each of the five fugitives have a good reason to turn from the path of the righteous into a life of crime (we hitherto couldn’t care whether they lived or died – another failing of the earlier act of the film).  We have Chen Kuan-Tai as Ma Rulong, who, in a rare non-action role, actually plays an action film star who has fallen on hard times (the scene where he gets screwed over by his film studio is probably not far from the truth), Danny Lee as Jiuzai who just wants to feed his siblings away from their father who is psychotically addicted to cigarettes (that’s what it says in the subtitles, anyway).  Elsewhere, we have the former racing driver whose wife has just six months to life but longs for a world cruise and a pair of brothers in trouble with the Triads.

How to look inconspicuous while on the run from the law.

After the backstories have been told, we come back to the present day and rejoin the characters as they fight for survival.  The final half hour deals with each member’s varying fate.

If you can make it past the first half hour of this film you might find some enjoyment here, but generally The Big Holdup feels rather predictable.  Incidentally, there is no “holdup” in this film, which I found rather disappointing; I was expecting a kind of early People’s Hero (which I hear is finally getting a DVD release soon).  The directorial style seems a bit hackneyed as well now, with a lot of interior shots with overhead lights swinging dramatically where they don’t really have a need to swing at all.  In any event, it’s unlikely you’re going to stumble on this film by accident, so avoiding it shouldn’t be a problem.  If you do want to seek it out, it’s probable that you already know exactly what you’re getting.

The Lady is the Boss (1983) September 12, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, Action, Kung Fu, 1980s films , 2 comments

Director: Lau Kar-Leung  Cast: Kara Hui Ying-Hung, Lau Kar-Leung, Lau Kar-Fai (Gordon Liu), Hsiao Ho, Wong Yu  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Shaw Brothers

The human mind is a strange thing.  Long ago, I’d got it into my head that I’d seen, on some kind of compilation tape, a scene from a movie where the monk San Te (made famous by the legendary 36th Chamber movies) battles alongside Hsiao Ho’s Mad Monkey persona in an early 80’s action flick in a gymnasium.  Impossible stuff, to be sure, but I thought I’d seen it.  After scouring my tapes, I realised it must have been some kind of demented fantasy, or at best I was horribly mistaken.  But more on that later.

The Lady is the Boss seems like the final part of a trilogy of films by Lau Kar-Leung exploring tradition, the change in social attitudes over time and female liberation – themes that were hardly staples of the Shaw Brothers’ (or indeed, any Hong Kong company’s) output at that time.  It’s probably entirely unintentional, but this feels like a relative of 1978’s sublime Heroes of the East (a film so good, I even stole the name of it for this blog!) and the worthy 1981 production My Young Auntie.  All three have the same underlying theme and share an unusual trait for films of this genre – no one is killed and there’s very little ‘violence’ on screen.

Kara Hui - everyone in 1980's USA dressed like this.  Fact.

That said, this is definitely a bit more barbed than either of the other two films.  The main plot focuses on Mei-Ling (Kara Hui) coming to Hong Kong to run the martial arts school currently being taught by Wang (Lau Kar-Leung).  Upon her arrival from the USA (Hui is seen chewing gum throughout and slanging English and Cantonese with a wantonness that leaves the poor Chinese traditionalists reeling), she despairs of the old-fashioned methods of teaching and Wang’s insistence on quality over quantity.  You see, the school has just five pupils, and training in stances alone takes one full year!  Mei-Ling comes in and revamps the school, getting lots of new students in the process.  Among the new recruits are a bunch of nightclub workers, whose boss is not too happy that his ladies are being taught ways of fending off the advances of their clients.  As the boss is played by veteran bad-boy Johnny Wong, we’ve got a pretty good idea where things are going to end up.

The Lady is the Boss must have looked dazzlingly modern back in 1983; which is to say it looks horribly dated now.  We’ve got neon pink outfits, effeminate men wearing lipstick, terribly tinny disco music and even a few BMX bicycles – all the hallmarks of a true 80’s production!  It all serves to make viewing the film all the more enjoyable, and no fan of the decade will be disappointed.  Besides, it makes a change from all the period pieces being churned out at the time by the studio.

Comedy plays a strong part in the film, and while the attempts at humour aren’t as bad as other Shaw productions, it still occasionally grates.  Like its predecessors, most of the humour is derived from the situations and the views of the traditionally minded versus the radical.  In places, the film plays a little too much like My Young Auntie for its own good in this regard, and occasionally you can’t help but feel that you’ve seen it before.

Surprisingly, the kung fu is downplayed for much of the movie in favour of comedy skits and other action scenes (including, as has been mentioned above, a short sequence involving BMX bikes).  When it does kick off, though, it’s pretty impressive.  With the likes of Wong Yu (Dirty Ho), Lau Kar-Fai, Hsiao Ho et al (not to mention Lau Kar-Leung himself), you know you’re going to get something special.  You have to wait a while, but you do get it eventually.  And there it is – Lau Kar-Fai playing a man playing San Te, and Hsiao Ho doing his Mad Monkey routine.  You’d be wrong to think there’s a good reason, plot-wise, for them doing it, but then there’s not a lot of reason involved in most of this film!

The Shaolin-Monk-ogram arrives.

In the final analysis, there’s a feeling that subconsciously Lau Kar-Leung was still siding with tradition in this film, despite the “old guard” being shown as outdated and a trifle ridiculous.  The five young men who trained under the old master still have far superior skills than anyone trained under Mei-Ling, and the “fast-track” training employed by her could be seen to be portraying “modern” martial arts training techniques in a derogatory light.  But I could be looking into it a bit too deeply, there.  It is, after all, an action comedy, and as they go, you could do worse than this 84-minute mini-celebration of 80’s kitsch.

Giù la Testa (1971) September 1, 2007

Posted by Cal in : Action, Drama, War, 1970s films , add a comment

Director: Sergio Leone  Cast: Rod Steiger, James Coburn, Romolo Valli  Territory: Italy

A Bandit family headed by Juan Miranda (Steiger) runs into explosives expert John (or Sean) Mallory (Coburn) who is also a terrorist fugitive on the run from the British.  Seeing an opportunity to use the Irishman’s skills to get into and rob the Mesa Verde bank, Juan badgers Mallory into working with him.  Upon arrival in Mesa Verde, though, they witness the horrors of the Mexican Revolution first hand, and Juan’s priorities change.

The film starts with a quote from Mao Zedong saying that revolutions are not civilized things – and then opens with a shot of Juan pissing on a colony of ants.  It’s not terribly subtle, but it does set out Leone’s political viewpoint right from the beginning.  As if that wasn’t enough, though, Juan (who is, or at least starts out as, an ignorant Mexican peasant) then hitches a lift on a stagecoach filled with American high society – who condescendingly goad and insult Juan before feasting.  The camera gets right up to their open mouths while they eat – really nasty stuff and definitely not for the squeamish.  Juan calmly watches this, clearly thinking that the rich and powerful are no better than the peasantry.  Like I said, it’s not subtle, but the point comes across very clearly and in true Leone style.

'...if I fall, they'll have to alter all the maps.'

The character of John Mallory is a member of the IRA, and his back-story is told in slow-motion dialogue-free flashbacks (which feature David Warbeck, who would later go on to star in Lucio Fulci’s horror classic The Beyond).  He is superficially in Mexico to mine for silver, but on seeing the carnage going on in Mesa Verde, joins the revolution.

The first hour and a half of this film is quite light and humorous in a lot of places, while the last hour (yes, this is another Leone epic, it runs at just a shade under two and a half hours on DVD) is altogether darker.  A standout comic scene sees Juan tricked into releasing a whole army of political prisoners on behalf of Mallory.  Seeing as how it was Juan who was supposed to be using John makes it all the more funny. 

The juxtaposition of comic scenes such as this with scenes of mass executions didn’t strike me as jarring as it did with some viewers, who found the film’s shifting tone too disconcerting.  The real stroke of genius is in the filming of the executions largely in the background as if they were routine, banal and not really worthy of great comment.  The result is much more shocking and makes one hell of an impact.

James Coburn may be the headlining star, but this is Steiger’s film without a doubt.  Although his character initially seems little more than another Tuco from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (in fact, you can almost see Eli Wallach in the role at the start), the character progresses much further and has much more scope than anything Leone had done previously.  What’s more, we can buy Steiger’s depiction of the peasant as he turns from a bandit to an accidental hero of the revolution.  The only fault is I sometimes had difficulty understanding his dialogue, and had to rewatch a key scene with the subtitles on! 

'Duck, you suckers!' - Juan picks up quite a following.

Although this was not initially intended to be a Leone directed film, he did stamp it with his own distinctive style all the way through and is as much part of his oeuvre as anything else, even though it will always be regarded as the “black sheep” of his filmography.  Although production values are quite high, this is not as sumptuously produced as Once Upon a Time in the West. The film doesn’t suffer too much as a result except for a slightly wonky special effects shot at the end involving a miniature.

Ennio Morricone once again provides the score, and for a while I thought he’d dropped the ball for once.  The themes just did not jump out at me in the same way as in earlier films.  However, with repetition, towards the end of the film it all gels together and becomes something quite, quite beautiful.  The man’s a genius.

No review of this film would be complete without some comment on the title.  This film is commonly called Duck, You Sucker, which is the film’s official English language title, but in the UK is known by the exploitative title of A Fistful of Dynamite.  I absolutely loathe both.  The first sounds like some screwball Terence Hill/Bud Spencer comedy; not that I have anything against these films (and will probably write a review or two on some of best in the near future), but it’s just wrong for a Leone movie dealing with such dark themes.  Legend has it that Leone thought the phrase was in popular usage in the States (how, and in what context, I wouldn’t like to even guess!) and would not listen to his American stars’ insistence that it was not.  The Fistful of Dynamite title obviously trades on past glories, which is also misleading as it is nothing like a “Spaghetti” Western, and has no gunfights or laconic anti-heroes who may or may not have a name.  By far the best title is the French Once Upon a Time…the Revolution (his previous film was a massive hit there), which even keeps in with the loose idea that this is the second film in Leone’s second American trilogy.  Unfortunately, though, this title seems the least well known of all, so I’ve opted to call it by its original Italian title, which I believe translates literally to “down the head”.

Whatever you call it, there’s no escaping the fact that this is by far the least seen of all Leone films since A Fistful of Dollars, with many still unaware of its presence.  It did not do great box-office business, probably due to whatever misleading title the film was given in your territory.  I’m sure had people known that Leone was only going to direct one more film it would have gotten more love.  I’m just starting to realise that Giù la Testa has a lot more going for it than I previously thought, and, like its predecessor, needs to be viewed as a completely separate entity from the world-renowned and ever-popular Dollars films.

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